How the Buddhist concept of Buddha, dhamma and sangha can aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences
By: Emil Grinder-Hansen, stud.psych.
We are in the middle of a psychedelic renaissance known in recent literature as the second wave of psychedelic research (Giffort, 2020). One of the popular areas of research, is how a psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience can lead to significant long-term positive changes in mood, psychic health, and clinical state (Barret & Griffiths, 2018; Griffiths, 2008; 2011; Griffith et al., 2018; Kundi, 2013; Søndergaard, 2022). Although lot of focus has been given to the healing potential of the mystical experience itself, less attention is paid to how the research subjects incorporate these experiences into their daily lives thereby maintaining a connection with it, which is known in contemporary psychedelic research as the integration phase (Johnson, 2008; Sloshower et al., 2020). Contemporary psychedelic research shows a general reduction in positive effects from a psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience over time (Griffiths, 2008; 2011), which can be interpreted as a sign that the insights gained will fade away in time if they are not maintained or re-experienced. It is therefore called for to find supportive models or frameworks to aid in the integration of these profound experiences thereby prolonging the positive effects associated.
This present paper will present a Buddhist perspective and framework for integrating the insights usually associated with a psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience drawing on the concept of the three jewels: Buddha, dhamma, and sangha. In traditional Theravada Buddhist texts these three jewels are presented as a refuge for the practitioner to seek, serving as an aid in the spiritual journey (Farb, 2014).
Based on the above this paper will attempt to answer the following research question:
In what ways can the Buddhist concept of the three jewels (i.e., Buddha, dhamma and sangha) aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical type experiences?
To answer this research question, it is necessary to account for both the theoretical and practical background of the three jewels in traditional Theravada Buddhism, and for the mystical experience as described in contemporary psychedelic research. Therefore, this paper will draw on both 2500-year-old Buddhist teachings as well as modern western research.
First, the method used in this paper will be presented following a theoretical account for the three jewels as well as the mystical experience. In the next part, the analysis, similarities between the dhamma and the mystical experience will be examined. This will be done in order to be able to reflect upon the implications for utilizing the three jewels as an integration tool for psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences in the final discussion. The discussion will include critical reflections about the results and research method applied in this paper. Lastly, the main points of this paper will be summarized in a conclusion.
The following section will go through the research method of this paper drawing on Køppe (2008).
First, it needs to be established that the premise of this paper is to examine how a theoretical and practical concept from a 2500-year-old religion – the three Buddhist jewels – can be used to integrate psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences in a modern secularized context. In other words, a Buddhist concept is being taken out of its original context and placed in an entirely different one. This is done well knowing of the methodological challenges related to making such a theoretical experiment – also known as eclecticism (Køppe, 2008). According to Køppe (2008) we must rely on critical self-reflection and a thorough analysis of the assumptions underlying the theories in question to evaluate the distance between the different theories and the chosen research object (Køppe, 2008). In the same manner, this paper will try to compare the theoretical assumptions underlying the Buddhist concept of the three jewels with theoretical descriptions of mystical type experiences in modern psychedelic research in a way so that a precise and narrowed understanding of both concepts are remained. This will be attempted by applying what Køppe (2008) refers to as a “moderate eclecticism”, using thorough analysis of the underlying assumptions of the theories and a critical self-reflection about the possibility to combine the different theories (p. 34).
The following section will further elaborate on the three jewels drawing on Bodhi (2013) and Farb (2014)
The three jewels refer to the Buddhist concepts of Buddha, dhamma and sangha (pali) described in traditional Theravada Buddhism (Bodhi, 2013). The Buddha according to Farb (2014) classically refers to the historical Buddha. In this paper, however, it is being applied in a more symbolic manner as the capacity to wake up to the same insights as the historical Buddha did. The dhamma (Sanskrit Dharma), refers to the classical teachings of the Buddha which includes both the meditation practice itself and the insights that the Buddha attained at enlightenment known as the three characteristics (Bodhi, 2013; Farb, 2014). Lastly, the sangha refers to the community and environmental context that supports the meditation practice (Farb, 2014). This theoretical section will not account further for the Buddha and sangha part of the three jewels, as it is already clear what they entail. This section will, however, elaborate on the dhamma part as it will be compared in the analysis to the mystical experience as described in modern psychedelic literature.
In this section the dhamma as the Buddhas teachings on states of meditation practice will be accounted for drawing mainly on Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1976) and Catherine (2008) and with reference to (Bodhi, 2023, Elefteriou & Thomas, 2021; Fox et al., 2016; Matko et al., 2021; Sparby & Sacchet, 2022; Lutz et al., 2015) .
There are many kinds of meditation practices in different Buddhist traditions which contemporary mindfulness literature has tried to organize and classify (Fox et al., 2016; Matko et al., 2021; Sparby & Sacchet, 2022; Lutz et al., 2015). This paper will draw on the traditional Theravada Buddhist practice known as mindfulness with breathing (“anapanasati” in pali), which aims specifically at cultivating mindfulness in order to gain direct intuitive insight, to “see clearly”, into the nature of reality – what the Buddha called the three characteristics (Elefteriou & Thomas, 2021; Bodhi, 2013; Catherine, 2008, p. 170).)
There are 10 sequential stages when practicing anapanasati that leads to deeper, more subtle states of profound stillness known as absorption states or the “jhanas” in pali (Vago & Silbersweig, 2012). This paper, however, will only go through the states that are most relevant for the analysis in section 3. These includes the states of what is in pali called pitti (rapturous joy), sukkha (peaceful pleasure) and ekagatta (one-pointedness) as described in Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1976) and Catherine (2008). Pitti is described as an invigorated bodily state born out of concentration which usually accompanies a positive mood (Catherine, 2008). Pitti can according to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1976) graduate between different levels from what can be described as contentment, to satisfaction to rapture. When piti transforms and becomes tranquil it is called sukkha (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976). Catherine (2008) describes sukkha as a quality of happiness much quieter and smoother than piti. Ekagatta is the state that arises with the capacity to remain one-pointed with the breath without losing focus (Catherine, 2008). The mind is completely unified and “one with the experience” (Catherine, 2008). Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu (1976) describes that the sense of time and space is significantly reduced or dissolved completely in this state as the boundaries between the meditator and the object are exceeded. For this same reason the experiences of deeper states of concentration are often difficult to put into words (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976).
According to the Buddhas teachings these states of concentrations will increase the likelihood of gaining insight into the nature of reality known as the three characteristics, which will be described in the following drawing on Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1992), Catherine (2008) and Giles (2019).
The three characteristics that can be “seen clearly” through anapanasati are impermanens, suffering and not-self. Impermanens (“anicca”, pali) refers to the fact that all material and mental conditions are impermanent and inconstant (Catherine, 2008). The second characteristic, Suffering (“dukkha”), is the consequence of ignorantly clinging to the illusion that things are permanent, including to believe in the existence of a self (Catherine, 2008) The last characteristic, not-self (“anatta”), reveals that self does not exist as a thing or in anything; it is revealed to be “(…) nothing more than an interdependently co-arising stream of shifting phenomena lacking any inherent permanence of solidity.” (Giles, 2014, p. 299). Through the direct experience of the impermanent nature of all things the ignorant belief that the self consists of a stable core across time and space is disillusioned. When exploring the three characteristics one also realizes that all phenomena are interdependent, as they literally only arise and exist dependent on each other (Catherine, 2008). Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1992) refers to this universal law of causality as dependent origination (paticcasamupadda), which has also been called “the Buddhist God” in Theravada Buddhism. Clearly seeing this law of causality in all phenomena is accompanied by a sense of wisdom and divine understanding of the absolute reality according to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1992). The absolute reality exists parallel to the relative reality that we usually live in, which is known in Buddhism as the two truths (Kornfield, 2008). The two truths points to the psychological paradox that on one level, the relative, we are individuals with distinct ego personalities across time and space, but at the same time, on the absolute level, we are nothing more than an empty “co-arising stream of shifting phenomena” (Giles, 2014, p 299; Kornfield, 2008).
This section will present the mystical-type experience drawing mainly on Barret & Griffiths (2018) and Stace (1960).
Administration of psilocybin in contemporary psychedelic research allows the opportunity to investigate life-altering deeply personal meaningful and often spiritual significant experiences known by different names in modern literature as both religious experiences (James, 1902), peak experiences (Maslow, 1959), holotropic experiences (Grof, 2019), quantum change experiences (Miller, 2004) or mystical experiences (Stace, 1960). The latter term is applied in this paper because contemporary psychedelic research tends to use mystical-type experiences in reference to Stace (1960) when describing and examining this phenomenon (Barret & Griffiths, 2018; Griffiths et al., 2008; 2011; Griffiths et al., 2018; Kundi, 2013; Milliere et al., 2018; Pahnke, 1967; Yaden, 2016). According to Barret & Griffiths (2018) the most definitive philosophical treatise on mystical experiences to this date was compiled by Stace (1960) (p. 3). Stace (1960) collected descriptions of mystical experiences and distilled them into a “common core” consisting of a definitional feature and six additional dimensions (Barret & Griffiths, 2018).
The critical definitional feature of the mystical experience described by Stace (1960) is an introvertive and/or extrovertive sense of unity with all things. The extrovertive unity involves the realization of interconnectedness and non-separateness at the core of all phenomena, while the introvertive unity refers to a state of emptiness as the result of the complete dissolution of the self and a loss of the notion of “I” (Barret & Griffiths, 2018; Stace, 1960). The first additional dimension is a sense of 1) sacredness or holiness applied to the experience (Barret & Griffiths, 2018). The second, 2) noetic quality, refers to a deep sense of meaning and encounter with an ultimate level of reality that is more real than everyday life (Barret & Griffiths, 2018). The next is a 3) deeply feelt positive mood ranging from more subtle kinds of joy and happiness, peace and tranquility to intense pleasure, rapture, and ecstatic awe (Barret & Griffiths, 2018; Stace, 1960). Furthermore, the experience is usually challenging to put into words, 4) ineffability, it seems to contain the co-existence of mutually exclusive concepts, 5) paradoxicality, and it can contain a distorted sense or, 6) transcendence of time and space (Barret & Griffiths, 2018, p. 4).
Drawing on the concepts accounted for above, the following section will consist of a comparative analysis of the dhamma part of the three jewels and dimensions of the mystical experience. The results of this analysis will be the backbone of the subsequent discussion of how the three jewels can aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences.
The following analysis will compare similarities between the dimensions of the mystical experience as proposed by Stace (1960) with the dhamma as both the Buddha’s teachings on states of meditation, and of the insights into the nature of reality known as the three characteristics (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976; Catherine, 2008).
First of all, the definitive feature of the mystical experience, introvertive and/or extrovertive sense of unity, is also an essential aspect of the three universal characteristics. The realization of interconnectedness on non-separateness at the core of all phenomena in what Stace (1960) describes as an extrovertive sense of unity parallels the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (paticcasamupadda) as described by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1976) and Catherine (2008). The realization that all phenomena are interdependent and thereby interconnected follows direct intuitive insight into the impermanent nature of all things (anicca) which is the purpose of anapanasati (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976; Catherine, 2008). The ego dissolution aspect of the introvertive unity experience (Stace, 1960) can be compared to the last Buddhist characteristic of not-self (anatta). According to the Buddha’s teachings, Anatta refers to the disillusionment of the ignorant belief that the self is a solid entity across time and space, and the simultaneous realization that the self merely consists of a complex set of conditions arising, changing, and fading away; a “co-arising stream of shifting phenomena” (Giles, 2014). The experience of 1) sacredness typical for the mystical experience according to Stace (1960) fits well with the sense of divinity that arises when gaining insight into the law of causality or dependent origination (paticcasamupadda) through anapanasati meditation according to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1992). The fact that paticcasamupadda has been refered to as “the Buddhist God” further emphasizes this point: It is a sacred or holy experience to clearly grasp the concept of dependent origination because, drawing on Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1992), it can be likened to “meeting God”. A sense of wisdom or meaning also arises through the realization of the three characteristics (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1992), which is what Stace (1960) describes as a 2) noetic quality. The noetic quality also refers to an encounter with an ultimate level of reality (Barret & Griffiths, 2018), which is exactly how the Buddha described the three characteristics – as a meeting with the absolute or ultimate level of reality (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1992; Kornfield, 2008). The 3) deeply felt positive mood in a spectrum of ranging intensity associated with the mystical experience (Stace, 1960) can be compared to the jhanic factors of pitti (rapturous joy) and sukkha (peaceful pleasure) accounted for above (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976; Catherine, 2008). According to Stace (1960) the deeply felt positive mood can variate between more subtle kinds of joy and happiness, peace and tranquility to intense pleasure, rapture, and ecstatic awe. The more subtle and peaceful states of tranquility equal the descriptions of sukkha as quieter and calmer, a sense that everything is as it should be, and the intense and ecstatic moods fits into the description of pitti as an invigorated and excited bodily state (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976; Catherine, 2008). The fourth dimension, 4) ineffability after having a mystical experience is comparable to what the meditator experiences after deeper states of concentration (samadhi). The boundaries between subject and object are dissolved which makes it very difficult to put the experience into words afterwards (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976). The 5) paradoxical nature of the mystical experience parallels the psychological paradox of the two truths as accounted for in this paper drawing on Kornfield (2008). The fact that the relative, ego preserving, level of reality co-exists with the absolute level where all phenomena are conditioned and in momentary change is a paradox. The absolute does not cancel out the relative; they are both equally true according to the Buddha’s teachings – hence, the two truths (Kornfield, 2008). The Buddhist notion of the two truths is an example of the co-existence of mutually exclusive concepts, the paradoxicality, that usually characterizes a mystical experience according to Stace (1960). The last dimension, a 6) transcendence of time and space, with the sense of either or both being distorted is described also in state of one-pointedness with the breath known in pali as ekagatta (Catherine, 2008). During anapanasati a state of “oneness with the experience” can arise preparing the conditions for the meditator to enter deeper states of concentration (samadhi) (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 1976). The deeper the absorption state, the more the experience of linear time and space is affected according to (Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu, 1976). The dimension of time and space is thereby also a part of the Buddha’s descriptions of meditative states in anapanasati.
To summarize, the analysis of the similarities between the dimensions of the mystical experience and the dhamma as both meditative states and insights shows significant parallels between the two. This serves as an argument that the dhamma can be used as an aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences as it, according to the Buddha, leads to similar understandings and insights. This argument will be further elaborated in the following discussion.
The following section contains a more direct discussion of the research question based on the analysis above, reflecting upon how each of the three jewels can aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences.
The established similarities between the dimensions of a mystical experience and the Buddhas teachings on the dhamma also serves as an argument, that the psilocybin-occasioned mystical experience will lead to a belief in the capacity to wake up to the same insights as the historical Buddha did. If you have already had insights into the absolute level of reality, as described in the Buddha’s teachings, you would most likely believe in the possibility that this level of reality, the spiritual dimension, exists, and can be revealed through anapanasati, as the Buddha claimed. The Buddha part of the three jewels can thereby serve as a reminder for those who have had a mystical experience, that this experience is valid and possible to reconnect with through mindfulness. The believe in the legitimacy of the mystical experience, will also serve as a motivation for establishing a meditation practice, so that the insights can be prolonged and enhanced without administering psychedelics. It is important to notice, that this claim is based on logic reasoning, and further research is needed to test this claim.
Drawing on the analysis, it can be argued, that mindfulness with breathing (anapanasati) can be seen as a way of re-establishing connection with a psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience. As concluded in the analysis, the concentrative states of pitti, sukkha, and ekagatta (Buddhadasa Bhukkhu, 1976; Catherine, 2008) are similar to the 3) deeply felt positive mood, 4) ineffability and 6) transcendence of time and space dimensions of the mystical experience (Stace, 1960). Furthermore, the direct intuitive insights gained into the nature of reality through anapanasati are very similar to the definitional feature of internal and external unity as well as the 1) Sacredness, 2) noetic quality and 5) paradoxicality dimension described in Stace (1960). Thereby, the dhamma as both the meditation practice itself and the insights into the three characteristics, as accounted for in this paper, can serve as both a practical and theoretical integration tool for psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences. These results can be further supported drawing on Yaden (2016) and Heuschkel & Kuypers (2020). Yaden (2016) compares psychedelic and non-psychedelic mystical experience with the conclusion that mystical experiences occasioned by psychedelic substances are genuinely mystical and descriptively very similar to non-psychedelic mystical experiences (e.g., the meditative states and insights (the dhamma) available through anapanasati) (Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu, 1976). The results in Heuschkel & Kuypers (2020) show that meditation and psilocybin exert similar effects on mood, social skills, and neuroplasticity. These findings further support the claim, that the insights gained from deep meditative sates post similar benefits as the psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience and therefore would work as an integration tool.
The hypothesis that the sangha (community and environmental context) can aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences is not backed from the analysis of this paper but is based on contemporary psychedelic literature descriptions of traditional use of psychedelics (Guerra-Doce, 2015; Winkelman, 2019). Psychedelics were traditionally applied as a ceremonial tool in the initiation rites of indigenous cultures (Winkelman, 2019). According to Guerra-Doce (2015) the purpose of the administration was not only to serve the individual but the whole community, and the responsibility to integrate the experience was also on the community. This is among other factors because the psychedelic experience is not personal but trans-personal and therefore involves more than just the person who has been administered a psychedelic substance (Guerra-Doce, 2015). It is outside the scope of this paper to examine this further, and more research on the role of the community in integrating psychedelic experiences is therefore required.
The analysis in this paper only focused on similarities and not differences between the mystical experience as described by Stace (1960) and the Buddha’s teachings on the dhamma. The reason for this is that many parallels between the dhamma as practice and theory and the mystical experience serve as an argument in favor of using the three jewels as a framework for integrating mystical-type experiences. It is a limitation that the paper did not focus on the differences – e.g., neurological, or phenomenological distinctions – between the two, which has been reported in contemporary literature (Elefteriou & Thomas, 2021; Milliere et al., 2018). The results in Milliere et al., (2018) point to the fact that the drug-induced (e.g., psilocybin) and meditation-induced (e.g., anapanasati) experiences of self-loss (as part of a mystical-type experience) are not uniform in terms of alterations of various aspects or dimensions of self-consciousness (p. 21). These results can be important to be aware of when considering the role of the meditation practice in integrating mystical-type experiences. If the experience of self-loss differs, this would not be in favor of the claim that meditation and thereby also the three Buddhist jewels would serve as an integration tool for psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences. However, Milliere et al., (2018) points to the fact that it remains difficult to assess in what respect conscious states induced by Samadhi practice really differ from states induced by other meditation practices or psychedelic drugs (p. 21). Deep meditative states of samadhi are exactly what this current paper has accounted for and examined, and the results of the analysis point to the fact that they are very similar.
This paper is not the first in recent psychedelic literature to claim the potential benefits of utilizing a mindfulness-based intervention or spiritual framework and practice to integrate and thereby maintain and enhance the long-term benefits of mystical-type experiences due to similar phenomenology and psychological benefits (Brewer et al., 2011; Eleftheriou & Thomas, 2021; James et al., 2020; Griffiths et al., 2018; Hendricks, 2018; Heuschkel & Kuypers, 2020; Sloshower et al., 2020). The spiritual dimension, and the fact that the three Buddhist jewels have been employed for 2500 years instead of just a few decades, are the new additions that separate this integration model from recent studies. This paper argues that there are significant benefits to employing a non-secularized (i.e. spiritual) framework when trying to integrate an experience that many research subjects describe as one of the most if not the most spiritual experience of their lives (Griffiths, 2008; 2011; Griffiths et al., 2018).
Additionally, is important to keep in mind the gap between theory and practice. This is a theoretical paper not considering the possible challenges faced in practice. For example, there is the challenge of getting research subjects to put in the hours required to learn insight meditation, which for many is considered an advanced practice (Catherine, 2008; Buddhadasa, 1976). Further research testing the utility of the three jewels in integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences drawing on clinical data would, however, accommodate this critique.
This section will summarize the points from the analysis and discussion in order to answer the research question. Based on the research in this paper, the Buddhist concept of the three jewels (Buddha, dhamma, sangha) can aid in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences in the following ways:
In conclusion, it is the argument of this paper, that psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience can provide direct experiential contact with the same states and insights as in deep meditation. Furthermore, it has been argued that a connection to the mystical experience will be reinforced utilizing the three Buddhist jewels as a spiritual, theoretical, and practical framework for integration, thereby enhancing and prolonging the positive effects associated with these kinds of experiences. In short, it is the conclusion that the three Buddhist jewels most likely can function as a supportive framework in the integration of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences.
This paper can at best be viewed as a preliminary study pointing at possible advantages of applying the three Buddhist jewels in the integration phase of psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences. Further clinical utility research is needed
Keywords: Psychedelic integration, psychedelic therapy, psykedelisk integration, psykedelisk terapi, psychedelic integration and buddhism, psychedelic therapy and buddhism, psykedelisk integration og buddhisme, psykedelisk terapi og buddhisme, meditation in psychedelic integration, meditation i psykedelisk integration, psykedelisk integration og meditation,
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